Last week at the Broadband Properties Summit 2009 in Dallas, speakers from AT&T promoted U-verse to the audience of multi-family-dwelling owners and managers.

The AT&T folks played up the benefits of U-verse, which drew 284,000 new TV subscribers in the first quarter of 2009. Not surprisingly, the speakers played down the drawbacks.

U-verse is AT&T’s suite of Internet protocol (IP)-based video, voice and data services delivered using very high bit-rate digital subscriber line (VDSL) technology. The IP format offers benefits over cable. But the drawback to U-verse is that the plant often includes legacy twisted-pair copper wire.

Lin Atkinson, GM of national accounts for AT&T connected communities, pointed out some advantages of having TV services in IP format. IPTV is convergent with other devices such as computers and routers, he said. The format offers flexibility for getting video to multiple screens.

Globally, IPTV is gaining traction. (For a status report from last fall, click here.) But while interoperability of components remains one of several sticking points, the benefits of using IP-based technologies are compelling.

"There are things you can do because you’ve got this standards-based two-way data stream," said Tim McElgunn, chief analyst, broadband advisory services with Pike & Fischer. "For providers, it just makes it much more simple."

Although its last mile remains predominantly copper, AT&T is laying fiber in the 93 markets across 19 states that offer U-verse, in some cases pulling it all the way to the home. "There’s a lot of investment going into delivering U-verse across the country," said Atkinson.

In its late April earnings release, AT&T reported 1.3 million total U-verse TV subscribers. "More than 90 percent of U-verse TV customers bundle U-verse high-speed Internet," said Atkinson.

(For more on competition from telco IPTV, click here.)


U-verse is a "switched" service, but IPTV "switched" is a little different from switched digital video (SDV) that some cable operators have deployed, explained John Holobinko, VP of marketing at BigBand Networks.

The IPTV set-top box does not have a tuner like a typical cable set-top. "In an IPTV network, every stream going to every customer is unique," said Holobinko.

This is different from cable, which usually delivers all available programming at the same time, but with SDV can determine which programs a group of subscribers actually want to watch and then instantaneously deliver just those programs.

"IP is a very efficient way of manipulating video," said Holobinko, adding that it’s an excellent choice for operators who don’t have to contend with MPEG-2 legacy gear.

But AT&T still must contend with its legacy telephone plant, often in the last mile.

"In the IPTV world, the pipe to the house isn’t as big as the cable pipe," said Holobinko.

Some folks at the Broadband Properties conference said AT&T’s bandwidth to each house is so limited, if a subscriber has four different TV sets and wants to watch HD on all four, he can’t do it.

However, one could argue that two TV sets showing HD and two showing SD would probably be adequate for most homes at any given time.

A benefit of IPTV is that the architecture is more symmetrical so you can more easily upgrade the return path than an HFC network, said Holobinko.

Pike & Fischer’s McElgunn said an IP network can take advantage of new Internet applications and development work.

For instance, Atkinson demonstrated some nifty features of the U-verse program guide and user interface. While watching one program, the viewer can surf other channels via a separate pop-up window. AT&T is also touting its total home DVR, which can record different programs on different TV sets at the same time.

"We’re just scratching the surface on convergence," said Atkinson.

– Linda Hardesty

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